Fifty years ago today, December 4, 1963, Pope Paul VI solemnly promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. To mark the 50th anniversary of this significant document, Catholic World Report spoke with liturgical scholar and writer Dom Alcuin Reid, OSB, author of The Organic Development of the Liturgy and a specialist in 20th-century liturgical reform, about the constitution, the reform that followed it, and the importance of Sacrosanctum Concilium today.
CWR: In order to have some necessary context, what should be known about the liturgical renewal movement that lead up to the Second Vatican Council?
Dom Alcuin Reid: The liturgical movement of the 20th century arose from currents in the previous centuries which promoted the Sacred Liturgy as the primary source of the spiritual life and which sought to enable people to partake of the treasures of our liturgical tradition. People such as Saint Guiseppe Maria Tomasi (1649-1713) and Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) come to mind as promoters of this.
In the 20th century itself, Saint Pius X gave great impetus to these currents by speaking of the necessity of the restoration of the “true Christian spirit” and of all the faithful “acquiring this spirit from its indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church”—i.e., the Sacred Liturgy.
This had a great impact. The Belgian monk Dom Lambert Beauduin and others organized this call into what became known as the “liturgical movement.” It spread quickly throughout Europe and across the world. Dom Virgil Michel of Collegeville, Minnesota brought it to the United States, and through his journal Orate Fratres and other publications gave the movement great impetus throughout Anglophone countries.
The movement’s aims were simple: to enable ordinary Catholics to participate in the liturgical rites of the Church so that they could draw from that wellspring of grace all that they needed to sustain daily Christian life. The initiatives of many pioneers in this period are inspiring, and are worth revisiting today.
This aim raised a question: was ritual reform needed to facilitate people’s participation in the liturgy? Discussion of this gathered momentum from the 1930s (Pius X had himself reformed the breviary), and after the Second World War Pius XII established a commission for liturgical reform whose brief was to work toward a general reform of the liturgy of the Roman rite. This commission produced reforms of Holy Week, the liturgical calendar, the rubrics of the breviary and missal, etc. that were implemented in the decade before the Council.
There are differing assessments of these reforms and of the principles from which some of the reformers were operating, but the overall aim was to facilitate that fruitful participation in or connection with action of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy as the basis of Christian life for all Catholics.
CWR: Why then the need for Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC]?
Reid: It is probably true to say that if Blessed John XXIII had not convoked an ecumenical council the liturgical reform begun by Pius XII would have continued gradually over the years, if not decades, to come. It’s difficult to say that there was a pre-existent “need” for Sacrosanctum Concilium, but once a council had been called it was natural enough that it would consider matters of liturgical reform.
CWR: SC was the first of the 16 documents of the Council. Why was it the first? Is that surprising, considering that the Council is widely understood as being focused on ecclesiology?
Reid: The liturgy being debated and promulgated first is undoubtedly due to the fact that there had been at least a decade of liturgical reform previously―the bishops had already been engaged in this question―as well as the fundamental importance of its subject. As Pope Paul VI said when promulgating it, “our first required duty is to bring prayers to God” and in considering the Sacred Liturgy first of all, “the right order of things…has been conserved.”
We need to be a bit careful about saying that the Council was “focused on ecclesiology” as if this occludes everything else the Council did. Certainly Vatican II teaches an important ecclesiology, and looking back there is a temptation to read the orientations of later documents into earlier ones. Historically, however, Paul VI did not wait for the Council’s ecclesiology to be articulated before beginning the work of implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium. That work began in earnest early in 1964, within months of its promulgation, [at which point] there were still two sessions of the Council remaining.
A school of thought exists which interprets Vatican II as an “event,” whereby is meant that the Council canonized an overriding and ongoing dynamic process of change—overriding, that is, the specific provisions of conciliar constitutions and the contexts in which they were formulated, and ongoing in that this view insist that these texts must be re-interpreted today in the light of this dynamic: “What would the Council have said now,” etc. This elevation of process into a hyper-hermeneutic is utterly foreign to the historical reality of Council itself. This following of a so-called “spirit of the Council” rather than its “letter” is a way of reading into the Council documents whatever one wishes regardless of what they in fact say.
CWR: Specifically, what does SC say?
Reid: There is no substitute for reading the constitution itself—which would be a good way in which to mark its 50th anniversary. As a guide, firstly it teaches a liturgical theology developed amidst the currents of 20th century theological and liturgical renewal. Let’s be clear that the Council does not define any liturgical dogma: one can respectfully prefer another style of liturgical theology and remain a Catholic in good standing. Nevertheless, it articulates its theology of the liturgy which has much to offer.
Then the constitution articulates its raison d’être: because the Sacred Liturgy is the “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed [and] at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows,” a widespread program of liturgical formation and a moderate reform of the liturgical rites are to be carried out in order to facilitate true the participation of all in the Sacred Liturgy. These are its fundamental principles; if we lose sight of them or ignore their interdependence we will interpret the remainder of the constitution erroneously.
General liturgical principles follow, as do more contingent ones which express the policy decisions taken by the Council which are intended to further the implementation of its fundamental principles. These policies are outlined in the remainder of the constitution.
It’s important to note—particularly 50 years later—that these policies are not doctrines and that whilst they were judged apposite then, it may well be that in the light of subsequent experience, and indeed of changed circumstances, different policies may be appropriate today. For example, the constitution stated that “a suitable place” may given to vernacular languages in the Mass, whereas today it would be necessary to say that “a suitable place may be given to the Latin language.”
CWR: Most Catholics, if asked about changes to liturgy, do focus immediately on Latin (or its absence) and the use of the vernacular, of the celebration of Mass “ad orientem” and “versus populum,” and the notion of “active participation.” What did SC actually say about those particular matters?
Reid: The Council called for participatio actuosa, which is primarily our internal connection with the liturgical action—with what Jesus Christ is doing in his Church in the liturgical rites. This participation is about where my mind and heart are. Our external actions in the liturgy serve and facilitate this. But participatio actuosa is not first and foremost external activity, or performing a particular liturgical ministry. That, unfortunately, has been a common misconception of the Council’s desire.
The Council allowed an “extended” place for the vernacular in the liturgical rites whilst stating that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved.” This is a typical example of the many nuances of the constitution, which called for a moderate reform on the basis of retaining sound tradition whilst being open to legitimate progress. It spoke similarly when it said that the treasury of sacred music was “to be preserved” and that Gregorian chant was to “be given pride of place in liturgical functions,” whilst allowing “other kinds of sacred music” provided “they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”
It may be surprising to learn that Sacrosanctum Concilium did not ask for, recommend, or order the celebration of Mass facing the people (versus populum). Nor did it call for the inclusion of new Eucharistic prayers in the Mass. These and other sensitive changes to the liturgy were made after the constitution was promulgated and are not directly attributable to the Council itself.
CWR: So why the difference between the constitution and the reformed rites? What happened?
Reid: Pope Paul VI appointed a commission to implement Sacrosanctum Concilium. There was nothing unusual in that—much the same took place after the Council of Trent. But it is a fact that from the moment this “Consilium” began its work in 1964―if not before―there were sharply divergent views as to the direction the reform should take. Personal agendas and ecclesiastical politics played their part—one only needs to read the memoirs of the secretary of the Consilium, Archbishop Bugnini (The Reform of the Liturgy, Liturgical Press, 1990), to learn the extent of them. There were even serious disagreements between the Consilium and Paul VI at times.
There was also a certain opportunism on the part of some of the Consilium’s officials and consulters. It is as if they were seeing “how far they could go,” with the result that the moderate reform called for by the constitution, with its nuanced provisions, was quickly left behind and rites that reflected both personal enthusiasms and political compromises were produced. In his memoirs Bugnini himself boasts that, in respect to the reform, the saying “fortune favors the brave” came true.
These rites were authoritatively promulgated, of course, and they are valid. But it is a more than open question as to whether they are in fact the reform desired by the Fathers of the Council, the organic development of liturgical tradition for which Sacrosanctum Concilium called.
CWR: You’ve talked about the official work of reform. But how was the liturgical reform implemented on the ground?
Reid: There was a very widespread attitude in the life of the Church―not only in respect to the Sacred Liturgy―that “Vatican II changed all that.” This is the popular slogan that summaries what Benedict XVI called “a hermeneutic of rupture.” This is what the “spirit of the Council” meant at grass-roots level.
Liturgically, change not continuity was the order of the day in many places, with little regard for Sacrosanctum Concilium or even for the official directives coming from the Consilium or from dioceses and episcopal conferences. Liturgical abuses and unauthorized experimentation were not uncommon. The Holy See and many bishops tried to stop these, but in some ways the gate had been opened by the “spirit of the Council” and the horse had well and truly bolted.
There were also the issues of hurried and faulty vernacular translations―an issue only recently rectified for English-speakers; of iconoclasm in the re-ordering of churches whereby much that was good and well-loved was rapidly and unnecessarily disposed of or even destroyed; of unsuitable music introduced into the liturgy in spite of what the Council laid down, and so on. These things were never intended by the Fathers of the Council or by the constitution.
Whilst it has taken decades to begin to correct the damage that was done, thankfully the days of widespread abuse of the liturgy and of experimentation are largely over. Blessed John Paul II reasserted liturgical discipline many times. [More recently] Pope Francis and Pope Benedict before him have spoken about the importance of beauty in the liturgy. Indeed Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) is, in many ways, a charter for liturgical healing and authentic renewal along the lines the Council desired.
CWR: There seem to be two great temptations regarding the liturgy in our time, the first being to make it “relevant” and even entertaining, the second being to make it insular and almost museum-like, with a fixation on esoteric details. How does SC help avoid these two extremes?
Reid: The Sacred Liturgy is relevant to each of us because of what its true nature is: it is the saving action of Jesus Christ in his Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium is very clear about this. Through the liturgy we are made Christians (baptism, confirmation, and first Holy Communion), formed and sustained in our Christian life (Holy Mass and the regular reception of the Blessed Eucharist, liturgical prayer such as the Divine Office, the Blessings, etc.), given the graces required for our particular vocations (matrimony, holy orders), and strengthened and healed as necessary (penance, anointing of the sick, rites of Christian burial, etc.). What could be more relevant?
But yes, when the true nature of the liturgy is not understood the temptation is to make of the liturgy something that is appealing or “relevant” primarily to those who will be present. An objective sense of celebrating the liturgy of the Church is lost, leading to that subjectivity whereby, as Cardinal Ratzinger once observed, “the community celebrates itself.” And of course once we go down this path there is the need to be constantly doing something new and different so that the “audience” does not become “bored.” No, the liturgy is not entertainment, it is ritual worship―the ritual worship of the Church, given to us in tradition and not made up by us—rather, it is something we celebrate faithfully and as fully as we are able.
There can be, as you say, a tendency to make the liturgy a museum exhibit, something untouchable, to almost put it “behind glass” as it were. In part this may be a reaction to the extremes and abuses of previous decades and to the liturgical subjectivity that still exists in many places. People can become hyper-sensitive when questions of changing the liturgy arise. As mentioned, Sacrosanctum Concilium speaks of retaining sound tradition whilst being open to legitimate progress. This is not a new or a “modernist” idea: the history of the liturgy shows its organic development. The liturgy must develop, organically, over time. Benedict XVI spoke of augmenting the Missale Romanum of 1962 with newly canonized saints and more prefaces, etc., and that would be a welcome and natural development, certainly.
One very happy development since the Council is the widespread expectation of those who are regularly present at liturgical rites of participating in them. This is true for celebrations of the newer and of the older rites. When there is such participation, we are not looking at a museum piece, regardless of whether its date is 1570/1962 or 1970/2002.
CWR: What about the older rites that Benedict XVI liberated, as it were, in 2007? Some have seen this act as a rejection of the liturgical reform of the Council.
Reid: It was certainly a striking and historical statement about the liturgical reform that followed the Council. That a pope found it necessary to address the fact that the liturgy had become such a point of division, and therefore to seek reconciliation within the Church as well as the reconciliation of the Church with her liturgical tradition by clearly establishing that the pre-conciliar rites were permitted and indeed valuable, is a singular moment in liturgical history. I don’t think it says that much about Sacrosanctum Concilium itself, except perhaps implicitly that its language did at times permit of differing interpretations, if not exploitation. Rather, it is an indictment of the direction the liturgical reform took afterwards. It may also underline the view that we have not in fact seen the liturgical reform as desired by the Fathers of the Council.
We should note that the Council never intended to produce one uniform “modern rite” that would be imposed throughout the Western Church as the Missale Romanum of 1970 was. It intended moderately to reform the received liturgical tradition, a tradition which included the differing rites of religious orders and also of some ancient dioceses. The “triumph” of the Missal of Paul VI over these rites (another notable event in liturgical history) is not attributable to Sacrosanctum Concilium. The constitution respects legitimate liturgical diversity. In the light of that one can say that the continued use of the usus antiquior―the older rites—or indeed the Church’s welcoming of the rites of the Anglican Ordinariates, are not opposed to the Council, particularly when the celebration of such rites serves the constitution’s raison d’être―which indeed they do.
CWR: So, we haven’t seen the liturgical reform as desired by the Fathers of the Council? This raises the question of a “reform of the reform.” Where would that leave SC and the Council in general?
Reid: In many ways it would allow us to realize its liturgical reform for the first time. Taking the “reform of the reform” seriously is really a matter of justice to Sacrosanctum Concilium and to the liturgical tradition preceding the Council. The modern rites, both on paper and as they are most often celebrated, do lack some elements of “sound tradition” which the Council wished to retain. Whilst it remains in the modern liturgical books (because Paul VI overruled the Consilium’s wishes on this), how often is the Eucharistic prayer of the Roman rite, the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), in fact used? What happened to the ancient Octave of Pentecost? And so on. Fifty years after the constitution’s promulgation, it is indeed a good time to re-read it and to ask exactly what it intended―and perhaps also, what it did not.
CWR: On this 50th anniversary of SC, what is the one thing we should recall about it?
Reid: We cannot return often enough to the constitution’s raison d’être: because the Sacred Liturgy is the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church, we must form people to be able to participate fruitfully in it. Ritual reform itself is not what is essential: being able to drink the living water offered by he who comes to us in the Sacred Liturgy is.